The Science of Color Applied to the Art of Perception

Anyone who has ever looked at a 19th century Turner seascape painting knows the dramatic effect it can have on one’s emotions. What is it about simple paint and brush strokes that can trigger such a response? Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson believes it is the pigments themselves that create the response in us.

Working together with a color chemist, Mr. Eliasson is endeavoring to produce paint pigments corresponding to every nanometer of the visible light spectrum. Like Turner of the 19th century, Eliasson of the 21st is interested in how we perceive light and the emotional reactions we have to it.

While Turner used water colors, Eliasson often uses photographs. Both artists, however, are students of color theory. What Eliasson has up his sleeve that the 19th century painter did not is the science of color.

Mr. Eliasson’s Turner Color Experiments have become an important part of his research. As an extension of these experiments Eliasson is now working on a series of color experiments on circular canvasses. It is all part of an attempt to formulate a new color theory based on the translation of light into pigment.

Mr. Eliasson uses circular canvasses because he says the circular shape generates a feeling of endlessness and allows the viewer to meander around the artwork. By abstracting the color, Eliasson believes the pigment itself drives the emotional response. As such, Mr. Eliasson shows he is interested less in what his art depicts and more in what the colors in the art emote.

Mr. Eliasson believes we should look at the pigments as part of nature and think of painting as a material phenomenon in much the same way that we sense a rainbow or a river or a volcano. As such, he is looking for the performative aspect of the art and the way it gets us to act and behave because of it.

In other words, it’s the light itself that comes off the color pigments that shapes how we feel about what we are looking at. Turner would agree.

About the Author: Mervin Woo
Mervin Woo is currently the Sales Manager for Konica Minolta Sensing Singapore Pte Ltd. Mervin graduated from The Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT University) and joined Konica Minolta (previously known as Minolta Singapore Pte Ltd) in 1996. With over 17 years’ experience in the field of light and colour instrumentation industry, Mervin has been invited to give talks in several conferences and seminars on light and colour management, jointly organised by various industry associations, such as Society of Information Display (Singapore and Malaysia Chapter), and International Commission on Illumination (CIE), Malaysia. He has also written an educational handbook, The Language of Light, which explains basic concepts in photometry and colorimetry. This handbook also gives an overview on photometric and colorimetric instrumentations and addresses important considerations on instrument’s selection.